Many people ask how to be a better listener. Luckily, there are some simple things you can do to improve this core skill. Empirically, good listeners are more engaged and active in conversations than many people expect. They’re also mindful of the level of listening they adopt.

Summary by The World of Work Project

How to be a Better Listener

According to work done by Zenger and Folkman, good listeners are more engaged and active in conversations than many people expect. They tend to ask helpful questions and try to build the self-esteem of the speaker. They’re also cooperative and offer some feedback. As well as doing these things, they’re mindful of the 6 level of listening they bring to the conversation, which we’ve covered elsewhere.

Ask Questions

To be a better listener you might need to ask more questions. Research has found that the best listeners actually ask a range of questions to promote discover and insight.

They ask questions that develop their own conversation of the subject. They ask questions that explore how others are feeling. And they ask questions that aim to help people see situations in new ways and from new perspectives.

Of course, good listeners still spend the majority of their time listening and have a smaller share of the conversation that the person they are speaking to. So it’s a case of being mindful and choosing helpful questions, rather than asking a lot of questions. And remember, you need to listen to the answers too!

In our experience, the best questions to ask are the ones that no one knows the answer to. If you ask these questions, you can make real progress.

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Build the Speaker’s Self Esteem

The best listeners do multiple things while listening. Not only do they help the speaker gain insight and understanding, but they help them settle into the conversation and grow in confidence. Doing this can be important. The come confident a person feels, and the more self esteem they have in the moment, the more creative and progressive they may be in their thinking.

So to be a better listener you might benefit from helping to build the speakers self-esteem and confidence.

You can do this by creating a safe environment, playing back what you hear with enthusiasm or with appropriate praise or recognition. You can also do this more subtly or genuinely by holding conversations in which the speaker is the expert and in which you are genuinely interested.

This is something we’ve found particularly helpful from a mentoring perspective. It might seem counter intuitive to adopt a position of ignorance, and to place the speaker in a position of knowledge, but it’s liberating and powerful to do so.

Be Cooperative

Being aligned is important in great conversations.

The best listening experiences happen when the listener is aligned with the goals of the speaker. The sense of working together that’s created when this alignment takes place is important. It helps the speaker feel safe and supported, which can free them of worry and help them think more creatively. It can also help boost their confidence to try new things, things they wouldn’t try from a mindset of fear.

To be a better listener you might need to really get behind the person you’re speaking to and cooperate, not compete. To do this you can remain clear on your own objectives in the conversation. You can also tell the speaker that your goal is to cooperate, and demonstrate how your goals are aligned.

To really bring this to live, adopt and adult-adult approach to the conversation. Drop hierarchy from your mind and remove fear of blame from the conversation. Remember that the conversation is about finding a solution or helping the speaker, not about winning.

Make Suggestions

It’s commonly accepted that good listeners play back conversations, but don’t really make suggestions. However, this isn’t really the case.

In reality, the best listeners do make some suggestions. But they do so in a safe and collaborative way, and from a position of trust and aligned objectives. They also “offer up” their suggestions and “hold them lightly”. They’re simply trying to help and offering things that might be helpful. They’re not telling the speaker what they should do.

Tell me anything sessions can be powerful
It’s OK to make suggestions

Learning More

Listening and communication more broadly are interesting topics, and hugely important in the world of work. We think that Otto Scharmer’s 4 levels of listening might be our favorite way to think about listening. You might also enjoy the six facets of effective listening or the six levels of listening.

When it comes to body language, you might find Mehrabian’s work interesting. We also think the 7 C’s of communication are a helpful, simple tool.

A lot of what’s actually covered here relates to coaching as well. At it’s core, coaching is about having great conversations and being a great listener. You might find our podcast on coaching for behavior change interesting:

The World of Work Project View

There is a lot of advice on listening out there. A lot of what it comes down to is paying attention, letting go of ego and making time for others. It’s easier said that done.

When we’re at our best, most of us find it pretty easy to do this. Unfortunately, in the real world, we’re often run down, busy and thinking about other things.

In our view, one of the best ways to get better at listening is to actually focus on improving your space and wellbeing. It’s also good to think about your own values and purpose. If you want to really listen, we’re sure you can.

It’s great to have a toolkit to follow, but if you don’t have the mental space, desire and energy to follow it, then it’s pretty useless.

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Some of the detail and the high level structure of this post came from an HBR article by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman: “What Great Listeners Actually Do”.

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